Front Row at the Movies
“Jersey Boys” -- From Newark
To Broadway To Hollywood
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Francesco Stephen Castelluccio (you’ll know him as Frankie Valli of The Four Season) was born in Newark, New Jersey -- so that makes him a “Jersey Boy.”
Frankie was known for his powerful falsetto voice, a memorable, raise-the-hairs-on-your-arm sound on such hits as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” In all, he had nearly 40 Top 40 Hits.
Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1999, they made the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
So it’s not so surprising that a Broadway musical based on Valli and his backup group followed in 2005. It was called -- you guessed it -- “Jersey Boys.” What’s known as a jukebox musical, this is a production that uses previously released popular songs as its musical score.
Now along comes the film version -- also called “Jersey Boys” -- showing this week at the Tropic Cinema. What’s so surprising about this is that the movie was directed by grumpy old man Clint Eastwood.
Everybody knows Eastwood (the onetime spaghetti western star) loves music. Jazz, to be specific. His “Play Misty for Me” was built around the Errol Garner instrumental. His “Bird” looked at the life of jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. He also produced films about jazzmen Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck.
But who knew he was a fan of a white doo-wop group like The Four Seasons?
“The rock era was not my favorite,” Eastwood admits. “But the novelty songs they did were a cut above most rock ‘n’ roll stuff.”
Here we have a biopic about some New Jersey boys from the wrong side of the tracks (Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito, and Nick Massi) who came up with a new sound, thanks to the three-octave vocal chords of one Frankie Castelluccio. With a little coaching by Massi. And a few tips from Joe Pesci.
“We grew up with Joe,” says Gaudio. “He’s an excellent guitar player and singer. It’s a damn shame he made it as an actor.”
At the heart of the story is how a code of honor these four guys learned on the streets of Newark helped them survive gambling debts, Mafia threats, and personal disasters.
They sold an estimated 175 million records. Yet at one point they were $1.4 million in debt.
According to screenwriter Marshall Brickman, “It’s a classic American story. It’s rags to riches, and back to rags.”
Or as Clint Eastwood laconically puts it, “It’s a drama that revolves around a singing group.”
The veteran actor/director admits he doesn’t think of “Jersey Boys” as a musical. “The Four Seasons had all these hit songs, but they were juvenile delinquents,” he says. “They were just guys from the neighborhood -- a place where, if you were a singer, you were looked down upon as strange, unless you were Sinatra.”
Eastman tapped John Lloyd Young, who played Frankie Valli in the original Broadway production to star in the film version. After all, Young had won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of the rock ‘n’ roll icon.
Clint Eastwood insisted on live musical performances while filming his movie. “I wanted to really showcase their talents by having them hit the high notes live,” he says. “In the old days everything was pre-recorded and the actors would just lip-sync, but I said, ‘No, we’ll just do it live’ so the emotion, the facial expressions match the song.”
Many years ago I watched Eastwood lip-sync songs during the filming of “Paint Your Wagon.” A loudspeaker blared out the lyrics while he pretended to sing. Constantly flubbing the lines, his mouth didn’t always match the music. No, he didn’t seem to be enjoying the experience, based on his profane asides each time the director called for a retake.
Eastwood shrugs, “I just thought these fellows had done it so many times on stage, there’s no reason they shouldn’t just do it live.” After all, John Lloyd Young had been in over 1200 performances of the play.
The 13th longest running show in Broadway history, “Jersey Boys” won four 2006 Tony Awards including Best Musical, and the 2009 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
Valli, now 80, weighs in on the unlikely success of “Jersey Boys.” As he sees it, “We were out of the public eye for a long time; we hardly did interviews … When we were trying to get ‘Jersey Boys’ off the ground, I’d get, ‘The Four Seasons? Who’s going to care? There’s the Beatles, there’s the Rolling Stones.’ But people know those stories. Here was a story no one knew.”